Friday October 31st, 2014

The 2014 season may be over, but baseball never stops, nor does our coverage here at SI.com. The just-completed World Series contained, in the upstart Royals and dynastic Giants, two of the best stories of the season. Here, then, is a look at some of the stories to follow for this offseason.

1. Qualifying offers

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This year's qualifying offer — a one-year deal worth the average salary of the 125 highest-paid players from the just-concluded season — will be $15.3 million. Last year, 13 free agents were extended qualifying offers (then worth $14.1 million). All 13 declined them. Of those 13, two (Mike Napoli and Hiroki Kuroda) re-signed with their previous teams, making the issue moot. Six others (Robinson Cano, Shin-Soo Choo, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Curtis Granderson) proved desirable enough that the draft-pick compensation attached to their signing elsewhere didn't stop other teams from signing them.

Five of those 13, however, found that the added cost of surrendering a top draft pick significantly reduced the market for their services. Those five — Ubaldo Jimenez, Nelson Cruz, Ervin Santana, Stephen Drew, and Kendrys Morales— all remained unsigned when pitchers and catchers reported to spring training. All but Jimenez, who signed a four-year deal with Baltimore on Feb. 19 with an average annual value of $12.5 million, ultimately settled for one-year contracts at or below the level of the qualifying offer.

Drew didn't sign until May 20, returning to Boston for a pro-rated portion of that $14.1 million, and Morales, who also received a pro-rated portion of $14.1 million, didn't sign until June 8, after the amateur draft, meaning the Mariners were no longer eligible to receive compensation. Having remained inactive for an additional three months, both had awful seasons and now return to the market at a fraction of their value of a year ago. Because both were traded later in the season, neither is eligible to receive another qualifying offer, though one imagines they'd accept one instantly.

Teams have until 5 p.m. ET on Monday, Nov. 3, to make qualifying offers to their outgoing free agents. Those players have until 5 p.m ET on Wednesday, Nov. 5, to accept or decline those offers.

2. Top domestic free agents

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Three of the game's top starting pitchers are on the market this offseason: Max Scherzer, the 2013 American League Cy Young award winner; Jon Lester, the ace of the 2013 world champion Red Sox; and James Shields, the Royals' ace who started Game 1 of this year's World Series. The oldest of that trio, Shields, will turn 33 in late December and didn't have a particularly impressive postseason. But over the last four years, he has averaged 233 innings and a 124 ERA+, and his teams have made the playoffs in six of the last seven years. Lester, who will be 31 in January, is the top lefty on the market and should be pursued by both the Red Sox and the Cubs, the latter of which is run by former Boston general manager Theo Epstein. As for Scherzer, who was nearly as good this past season as in his Cy Young campaign the year before, he seems likely to land this offseason's largest contract.

Other top names on the market are shortstop Hanley Ramirez; catcher Russell Martin; third baseman and three-time world champion Pablo Sandoval; home run champion Cruz (who may have to contend with another qualifying offer); OPS leader Victor Martinez; and ace relievers David Robertson, Sergio Romo and Andrew Miller. SI.com's Ben Reiter will have his annual ranking of the offseason's top 50 free agents, the Reiter 50, on Monday.

One man who won't be included on Ben's list is Joe Maddon, the top managerial free agent on the market, who was rumored to have come to terms with the Cubs on Wednesday, though both sides have disputed those reports.

3. Top international free agents

If you don't already know the names Yasmani Tomas and Kenta Maeda, you will shortly. Tomas, an outfielder who will turn 24 in November, defected from Cuba in June and has already drawn significant interest from many major league teams. Teams believing he is the next Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig or Jorge Soler wil pursue Tomas, and he's likely to sign a hefty contact this winter.

Maeda, a righthander who will turn 27 in April, is the ace of the Hiroshima Carp and could be the next major Japanese starter to be posted under the system which was revised during last year's winter meetings. Maeda hasn't been as good in Japan as Masahiro Tanaka and Yu Darvish were before coming to the United States, but the way those two have dominated in the majors is sure to embolden some team to make a significant commitment to Maeda, who won the Sawamura Award (the Japanese Cy Young) in 2010.

Thus far, Maeda and the Carp have been coy about whether or not the righty would be posted, but his posting has been anticipated since 2013, when he served as Japan's ace during the World Baseball Classic, in which Tomas also starred.

4. Extensions and arbitration

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Last winter brought nine-figure extensions for the game's best player (Mike Trout) and pitcher (Clayton Kershaw). This offseason's top extension candidate is Giancarlo Stanton, who will be eligible for arbitration for the second time and is coming off an MVP-quality season in which he made $6 million. With the Marlins having improved by 15 wins this past season relative to 2013, signing Stanton to an extension could radically change the culture of that franchise. Beyond Stanton, there are several top players entering their walk years, including aces David Price, Johnny Cueto (who is coming off his best major league season) and Jordan Zimmermann.

The Nationals' situation is particularly intriguing. Along with Zimmermann, shortstop Ian Desmond, centerfielder Denard Span, righty Doug Fister and set-up man Tyler Clippard are all due to become free agents after 2015. Meanwhile, catcher Wilson Ramos and reliever Drew Storen are eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter, Stephen Strasburg is eligible for the second time, and leftfielder Bryce Harper will be eligible for the first time next winter. The Nationals need to be proactive to gain some cost certainty, and it could come in the form of significant extensions for several of the players listed above.

Other intriguing players reaching arbitration for the first time this winter include Josh Donaldson, Kyle Seager, Lorenzo Cain, Kelvin Herrera, Josh Harrison, Lance Lynn, Alex Cobb, Garrett Richards, Chris Tillman, Todd Frazier, Devin Mesoraco, Dee Gordon, Brandon Crawford and Astros slugger Chris Carter.

5. New administrations make their first moves

Six teams, a full one-fifth of the majors, enter this offseason with new general managers, while a seventh has experienced what could prove to be an influential substitution in its front office. The Rays, Braves and four of the five teams in the NL West (home of the longest-tenured general manager in the game, the Giants' Brian Sabean) are the teams with new general managers. Andrew Friedman left the Rays to become team president of the Dodgers in mid-October, with incumbent GM Ned Colletti retreating into a senior advisor role. Rays team president Matt Silverman will serve as Friedman's replacement in Tampa Bay.

In Atlanta, John Hart will head up the front office as president of baseball operations working in partnership with assistant general manager John Coppolella. The Padres' A.J. Preller, hired away from the Rangers in early August, is now the second-longest tenured GM in the NL West, while Jeff Bridich takes over that role in Colorado, and former Athletics ace Dave Stewart has become the rare star-player-turned-GM in Arizona, where he will serve under his former Oakland manager, Tony La Russa. Finally, with former general manager Pat Gillick serving as interim team president and Chief Executive Officer due to David Montgomery's illness, the Phillies are expected to begin what is a very overdue rebuilding.

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It will be fascinating to see what moves each of those new administrations takes this offseason. The Dodgers are coming off back-to-back NL West titles. The Rays are just one year removed from a run of six postseason berths but have lost Friedman, Maddon and their ace, Price, since July. The Braves are a talented young team that averaged 92.5 wins and made the playoffs three times from 2010-13, but went just 7-18 in September to fall out of the wild-card race. Meanwhile, Arizona and Philadelphia finished in last place in 2014, and San Diego and Colorado coming off four straight losing seasons.

6. The new commissioner

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The general impression is that commissioner-elect Rob Manfred's tenure will, at least at the onset, be a mere continuation of Bud Selig's reign. After all, Manfred was Selig's second in command and has worked in the commissioner's office since 1998. Still, MLB hasn't had a new commissioner since the owners forced Fay Vincent out and appointed Selig the interim in September 1992. Manfred, who has already been increasingly visible at baseball's major events this year, dating back to the All-Star Game a month before his election, will officially take over on Jan. 24.

7. Pace of play

Last offseason brought a pair of major rule changes in the implementation of expanded instant replay and the controversial Rule 7.13, which banned home plate collisions. This offseason, efforts to improve the game on the field are expected to focus on increasing the pace of play, a topic about which SI's Tom Verducci has been especially outspoken.

The first step in that direction, implemented by Selig's Pace Of Game Committee, has been experimenting in the Arizona Fall League, which began play in early October and will conclude its season with its title game on Nov. 15. Those include requiring batters to keep one foot in the batter's box between pitches, no-pitch intentional walks, installing a 20-second pitch clock in one of the ballparks, limiting inning breaks to two minutes and five seconds and pitching-change breaks to two minutes and thirty seconds, and limiting each team to three non-pitching change on-field conferences per game (including conferences with the catcher or infielders).

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Of course, as ESPN's Keith Olbermann pointed out in late August, MLB did almost exactly the same thing in the Arizona Fall League in 1992 and already has the necessary speed-up rules in place with rules 6.02(b) and 8.04, which are almost never enforced. Olbermann's argument that baseball has no real intention of speeding up the games is convincing. To which I'll add: If the only alternative to four-hour games is an ever-present 20-second clock, I'll take the four-hour games.

8. The BBWAA Awards

The finalists for the Baseball Writers' Association of America awards will be announced on MLB Network on Nov. 4, and the winners will be announced over the course of the following week: Rookies of the Year on Nov. 10, Mangers of the Year on the 11th, Cy Youngs on the 12th and the MVPs on the 13th.

This year, the closest races are the AL Cy Young award, which should come down to 2010 winner Felix Hernandez and breakout Cleveland ace Corey Kluber, and the NL Most Valuable Player award, which could go to any of a number of players, including Stanton, last year's winner, Andrew McCutchen, or likely Cy Young award winner Kershaw, who would become the first NL pitcher to win the MVP since Bob Gibson in 1968. As I have since 2010, I'll have full coverage of the awards at SI.com in my Awards Watch column.

9. The Hall of Fame ballots and results

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The Veterans Committee's Golden Era ballot, featuring 10 names, was released on Thursday, with the voting results to be announced during the winter meetings on Dec. 8. The BBWAA ballot — which should include newcomers Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, and Gary Sheffield, among others, as well as holdovers Craig Biggio (who fell two votes shy of induction last year), Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, Roger Clemens, and Barry Bonds — will be released on Nov. 24, with the voting results announced on Jan. 6.

As always, Jay Jaffe will have full JAWS coverage of both ballots, including his two-part breakdown of the 10 Golden Era candidates — Dick Allen, Ken Boyer, Gil Hodges, Jim Kaat, Minnie Miñoso, Tony Oliva, Billy Pierce, Luis Tiant, Maury Wills and executive Bob Howsam.

10. The return of Alex Rodriguez and possible Biogenesis revelations

Alex Rodriguez's 162-game suspension officially came to an end when Sandoval squeezed Salvador Perez's foul pop-up to end the World Series, but he's unlikely to make his presence felt until players start reporting to spring training in February. One thing we think we know is that the Yankees intend to welcome him back as their third baseman (though it seems likely he'll have to be used primarily as the designated hitter, coming off a year of inactivity at the age of 39).

That may be a 2015 story, but it's a reminder that we have likely not heard the last from the Biogenesis scandal. The clinic's former owner, Anthony Bosch, has pled guilty to federal drug charges and is cooperating with investigators. The trial of four of Bosch's former associates — including Rodriguez's cousin, Yuri Sucart, whom A-Rod had previously named as the source for the mysterious "boli" for which he tested positive while with the Rangers in 2003 — is scheduled to being on Feb. 9.

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Back in August, when Bosch, Sucart and eight others were arrested in connection with the case, ESPN's T.J. Quinn reported that the DEA's investigation had turned up the names of major league players not previously associated with Biogenesis who were in fact Bosch's clients. That was before Bosch started cooperating with the investigation. It seems likley that those names will come out eventually, possibly during the trial, if not before, at which point Manfred will have to contend with both those revelations and the precedent of suspensions, set by Selig, for what MLB calls "non-analytical positives."

What's more, given the timing of the trial, which starts just 11 days before pitchers and catchers report, the players named will likely already have their 2015 contracts and be an established part of their teams' plans for the 2015 season. Here's hoping the biggest names implicated are the ones we've already heard.

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